In 1956, Elvis Presley’s hip-shaking debuted on The Ed Sullivan Show, poodle skirts reigned, Grace Kelly was crowned Princess of Monaco—and queen of Chicago fashion Nena Ivon began her iconic career at Saks Fifth Avenue. She was 16 years old then, hitting the sales floor as an associate in the debutante sportswear department. Last month, Ivon retired as the special events-publicityfashion manager after 53 years at Saks. That deserves a little reminiscing.
Back when Ivon started, retail was a different game. “Designers weren’t superstars back then,” says Ivon. They are now, thanks in part to Ivon, who was one of the first to arrange in-store designer appearances and fashion shows, many for charity. She—and Saks—helped unite designers with their elite clientele, making them household names. That’s why you know Geoffrey Beene, Givenchy, Adolfo.
Her experience with high-end designers segued into a love for mentoring local fashion students at Columbia College, where she teaches three classes. For the last two years Ivon has produced Dress Code, a fashion show that brings together four of the area’s top design schools as part of Fashion Focus Chicago, and in 2006, Columbia created the Nena Ivon Scholarship Fund in honor of her years of service to the fashion industry. “Columbia has become just as big a part of my life,” says Ivon, who plans to continue teaching.
Go to any event and it’s easy to spot her. Known for wearing a signature black turtleneck, she can’t pinpoint the origin of the Ivon uniform. “Maybe to hide my chin? I’m not sure. I do wear color, too, though.” So how’d she dress on her first day? “Probably all black,” she says.
When Saks celebrated its 50th anniversary in Chicago, it was 1979, and for one night, Ivon did it up big: She created elaborate displays on all five floors, each representing one decade of style. The ’20s served drinks in teacups (Prohibition), priced apples at 5 cents a piece (the Depression) and showcased flapper costumes. The ’40s had big-band tunes and an even bigger dance floor. Even livelier was the fifth floor, which celebrated the age of disco with a DJ spinning the Bee Gees. “I couldn’t get people to leave,” she says, still amazed. “I cut off the liquor, turned off the music and they still didn’t go.”
Her influence on the city, the fashion set and philanthropic pursuits isn’t lost on anyone—during a fashion show benefiting the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the city declared August 18 “Nena Ivon Day.” “It was quite an honor,” she says. “This was a way for them to honor Saks. Saks and me, we’ve become quite synonymous through these years.”
The plaque marking the day is among her personal archives, which have been donated to Columbia College. “They have all of my work, my clippings, photos, programs from shows. Everything. One day you’ll be able to research it, all 53 years of change in the city, in fashion, and in me.”
The best part, says Ivon: The boxes are labeled Columbia College Archives: Nena Ivon Collection. “Kind of makes your heart flutter, right? It sure has been one hell of a good run.”